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Provocative History - Napoleon #5 Crashing into Cairo


    Last time we left off, Napoleon had tasted power for the first time as the head of a provisional Italian government, in addition to taking negotiations with the Austrians into his own hands. In accordance with the famous saying of Machiavelli's, it has corrupted him. Now, Bonaparte looks for an opportunity to seize further power.

     While he waited for such an opportunity, however, he started thinking about the riches of the east. The ludicrous legends and wealth of the orient could be his if he only reached out to pluck it! Napoleon secured permission and 35,000 soldiers from the French government. From there, he carefully avoided British patrols in the Mediterranean, and landed in Alexandria, hoping to disrupt English trade in the region.

     I'd like to take a temporary step back to examine Egypt at this time. Differently from its rule under the Ptolemaics, and the Eastern Romans, Egypt was now a mere province in the Ottoman Empire, which had subjugated the Egyptians nearly 400 years previously. Regardless of their subjugation by the Ottomans, the sandy dunes were regarded as nearly impossible to conquer. The arid climate is a far cry from verdant Western Europe, and oases few and far between.

    But you know Napoleon by this time already. He isn't going to let something silly like weather or geography get in his way. By July 3rd, 1798, Alexandria had raised the French banner and became his headquarters for the campaign to come. Pressing the advantage, Bonaparte's army marched to Cairo. The Moslem forces met him several miles from the city. Defending Cairo from the walls would have meant giving up one of their primary advantages: cavalry.

     Now hold up; Cavalry? In the near-19th century? Weren't horsemen completely outdated by this time? This battle, which would become known as The Battle of the Pyramids, or The Battle of Embabeh, revolutionized warfare as we know it in many ways, most important of which was the significant decline in horsemen being deployed on the battlefield.

     But back to the battle. Seeing Egyptian cavalry riders rapidly approach him, Napoleon arranged his soldiers in square formations throughout the desert Every man had his fellows at his side; they could not be charged by cavalry to the back. With muskets pointed outwards and bayonets sharply fastened, it was the perfect strategy. Groups of horses stampeded across the dunes, sending clouds of dust spiraling up into the air. As time went on, however, the horses began to tire. Riders looked from side to side for targets that never came. At this point the smoke of gunpowder had arisen, and the cries of the dead mixed with the beating of hooves. All while they looked for a place to strike, more and more were shot down. By the time the enemy realized what was occurring, it was almost too late to flee.

     The cheers of the French overwhelmed the groans of the Egyptian and Turkish dead. It was a victory like few others in history: Bonaparte lost 30 men alone; the natives 5 to 6 thousand. The battle was over in less than an hour. Three days later, a blue-white-and-red tricolor flew over the ancient city of Cairo. Victory was theirs.

     Luck, however, demands checks and balances. When one experiences such a fantastic stroke of luck as a nearly bloodless victory, a disaster of equal magnitude must occur. Enter, stage right, Admiral Horatio Nelson. In his haste to conquer, Napoleon had forgotten to protect his ticket out of here. The entire French navy, anchored in Alexandria, was blown to smithereens. Now, the young general, and 35,000 French citizens were trapped in Egypt, the greatest disaster in Bonaparte's career.

     Not only this, but around this time someone finally decided to deliver heartrending news to Napoleon: his wife was being unfaithful. Josephine, love of his life, had betrayed him, just as his luck had. The Corsican was crushed. Writing from Cairo, and feeling a great sense of depression, Bonaparte told his brother in a letter that, "Grandeur no longer matters..."

     What a departure from our friend's usual arrogance! Fate is whimsical and pulls its puppet strings in unprecedented ways. Where will it take Napoleon next? Find out two weeks from now! (Or consult your memory and Wikipedia, but please don't. No spoilers!)







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